Breathe Life into Learning with Engaging Academics

(an adapted excerpt from The Joyful Classroom: Practical Ways to Engage and Challenge Students K–6)

Photograph by Jeff Woodward.
Ms. Romano has gathered her fourth graders in a circle at the start of a science lesson. “Today,” she says, “you’ll begin learning about the properties of light and shadow. This will help you better understand lots of things we’ll be studying this year in science, like phases of the moon, temperature and seasons on Earth, and life—or the absence of life—on other planets.

“As you do this learning, you’ll all be scientists. Scientists ask questions, they observe closely, and they try things out. The first step on our scientific journey is to make a list of questions. What do you already know about shadows? What do you want to know? I bet we can come up with a long list.”

After students name some facts about shadows, they move on to questions to explore. “How about ‘Why do shadows change size?’” Suzanne says.

Ms. Romano writes that on the whiteboard.

Eager student responses continue until the class has assembled a list of questions they can work with in their explorations.

Ms. Romano pairs students up and gives each pair a flashlight and an array of common objects. Their task is to experiment and try to answer the questions listed on the board—such as how to make the shortest and longest shadows possible, and whether shadows have color. They can choose to either write notes about their findings or sketch what they see.


Six Characteristics of Engaging Academics

  • Learning is active. The students in Ms. Romano’s class spend most of this lesson “doing”—thinking, exploring, and applying what they’ve learned—rather than watching or listening.
  • Learning is interactive. Students work with partners, talking through ideas, trying things out, and honing their thinking—while developing important social-emotional skills.
  • Learning is appropriately challenging. Students list what they already know about the topic and then build on that knowledge to generate questions to explore.
  • Learning is purposeful. Ms. Romano lets students know how this lesson connects to a larger body of knowledge and how it can help them understand other topics they’ll be studying in fourth grade.
  • Learning is connected to students’ interests and strengths. Ms. Romano knows that this particular group of students especially likes opportunities to try things out and be “hands on” in their learning. She also knows that many of them prefer drawing to writing and appreciate having the option to sketch what they see.
  • Learning is designed to give students some autonomy and control. In this lesson, students get to choose which questions to explore and figure out how best to test out ideas and answer those questions.

The more students can approach learning in a spirit of play and exploration, as Ms. Romano’s students do, the more committed they’ll be—even during challenging work. With a small investment of time for planning, Ms. Romano was able to draw upon her knowledge and understanding of the students she teaches to connect essential learning to their lives and interests while challenging them to stretch and grow.

Building the characteristics of engaging academics into lessons helps students do rigorous learning in a dynamic way. Students not only engage with and enjoy their learning, but are more willing to tackle challenging tasks and more likely to remember what they’ve learned. One of the best things about engaging academics? You needn’t adopt a new curriculum or find room for additional lessons in your already crowded schedule. Instead, as you plan new lessons, you can build them around one or more of the six characteristics. And you can gradually incorporate the characteristics into existing lessons.

Incorporate Activities Kids Love

One way to make lessons engaging is to incorporate activities kids love—just as Ms. Romano does by having students learn through observation and by offering two choices (drawing and writing) to record what they discover about shadows. Kids love to observe, research, and collect; to move, dance, and get their hands dirty; to use their imaginations. Lessons that draw on these interests really make learning come alive. Here are a few simple, kid-friendly ideas to get you started.

Observe, Research, and Collect

Children are naturally curious, always investigating and interacting with the world around them. Watch a child walking through the woods or down a neighborhood street or just exploring the backyard. They seem to have a built-in desire to make sense of their environment and often find joy in the smallest of discoveries. They love to ask questions, find out how things work, and spend time outside in nature. Ms. Romano’s lesson builds on this passion and you, too, can nurture this innate curiosity by giving students time to observe objects, animals, or insects closely (such as with naked eyes or with a microscope, telescope, or magnifying lens) and record observations. For example, you could have students:

  • K–2: Germinate seeds and observe changes in the seeds over time, noting the changes (drawings and words) in a class journal
  • 3–6: Observe, chart, and illustrate the phases of the moon and then describe (via visual or oral presentations) the orbital motion of the moon as it revolves around Earth
Sculpt, Build, and Create

Children love to construct, build, sculpt, draw, and color. They begin with visions of what they might create and then dive in, solving problems and adjusting and refining their ideas as they go. By supporting and encouraging their explorations, you can help them develop resilience and persistence and learn to love the process as well as the finished product. One way to do this is to have students build a model or create a museum display. For example, you might have students:

  • K–6: Build a model of a molecule, Native American home, insect, setting for a story, or the solar system
  • K–6: Sort, label, and display a range of items—such as fossils, ancient Egyptian artifacts they’ve recreated, or rock and mineral collections

Creating a Joyful Classroom

When academics are taught in ways that are lively and engaging, students learn content—and they also learn to love learning itself for the way it helps them grow, for what it tells them about themselves, and for what it shows them about the world. What’s more, the confidence and skills they develop prepare them for life as committed, concerned, and enlightened 21st century citizens.

Learn More About Engaging Academics


Incorporating activities kids love into your lessons is just one of the many practical, use-it-now strategies you’ll explore in The Joyful Classroom!

You’ll also learn about:

• Getting to know students

• Grouping students for collaborative learning

•Making learning interactive

• Creating a three-part lesson structure

• Providing students choices about what or how they learn

• Teaching students how to self-assess

With each strategy, you’ll find suggestions for implementing the strategy, examples from classrooms, and lesson ideas to help you make students’ learning active, interactive, relevant, and exciting. Try these strategies and watch your classroom become one where the light of learning burns brightly for every student.

Tags: Engaging Academics, Joyful Classrooms

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